The Internet Knows What I Looked At Before. How Does It Do That?

You saw a pair of sneakers on a website once. You salivated over how nice they were, and the thought crossed your mind that hey, this could be the right time to upgrade your sports gear,, you resist temptation and decide not to buy them. Maybe if there was a sale or a super attractive discount code, you might decide to buy them. Maybe. You click off the website (with a heavy heart) and try not to think about those sneakers for the rest of the day.

The next day you open up your Instagram feed to see what your friends have been up to and as you scroll down, those very sneakers that had tempted you, now pop up as an ad in your social feed. And it says that there's a special deal.... FREE delivery! Do you wonder, how did Instagram "know" that you were looking at these shoes? And you can't help yourself. Even though the sneakers are at full price (yes, with FREE delivery) you click on the ad - just to view them again.

The great thing about viewing something online is that you can be as indecisive as you want, without an irritated salesperson watching over your shoulder. So you add the sneakers to your cart, then (with a heavy heart) you decide against buying them despite the delivery deal, and click off the website.

It's now the weekend for you to go hiking and because there's no coverage on your trails, you don't bring your phone along. When you get back on Sunday, you decide to unwind before bedtime by watching YouTube videos. Just before your video plays, you see an ad pop up (the "pre-roll" ones which most of us impatiently tap 'Skid Ad' after the obligatory 5 seconds). You can't wait to close the ad but then, hang on, it's an ad for the sneakers you were looking at on Friday! And they're having a crazy price slash that's too good to ignore. You click on the ad (how could you not?) and land on the page offering this limited time offer. When you click "buy now" you realise that the sneakers are still in your shopping cart from when you visited the last time. So you enter your credit card details click on "submit" and the transaction is complete - the sneakers are yours!

Floating down from the euphoric cloud of finally getting the sneakers that had captured your heart, you think to yourself, how did Instagram and YouTube "know" that you had lusted after those shoes? In fact, how did they "find you" at the perfect time and push all the right buttons to entice you into buying? You had first seen the sneakers on a website that wasn't associated with either of these platforms yet you saw the very same sneakers on both the platforms later. What magic was this?

Let's go back to the very start of your impulse shoe-buying journey. When you first landed on the sneakers site, you may have come across a notice that said something about cookies and privacy. You pressed "accept" before continuing to browse the site.

What you may not know is that you have given permission to the site to place trackers, also commonly known as cookies and pixels. The difference between the two is that cookies are saved on your browser while pixels relay your information back to servers. But in essence, their main purpose is to track you across the digital realm and try to hit you repeatedly with marketing messages over different platforms in the hope that you will buy/sign up from that website.
With trackers in place, marketers are able to target you with more accurate ads.
In this case, because you were looking at a particular pair of sneakers but left the site without buying, the system would deduce that a) you were browsing without intent i.e. window shopping, or b) you had some intention of buying but perhaps there were factors that were holding you back.

Now this is where the magic of remarketing happens. Click here to go to our blog on remarketing. From past experience, the owners of the website know that if they target people with free shipping after they come to the site, there is a higher chance that they will buy. So they send out a remarketing ad on Instagram to show their FREE delivery ad to anyone who has visited their website to view sneakers but didn't buy.

When you clicked the Instagram ad, you opened up a page that looks like the same one you've visited before except that it now has a special "FREE delivery" promotion. What you don't realise is that while it may look like the same page, it is likely to have a different URL which was specifically created for this promotion. Then, when you clicked "add to cart" but ended up clicking off the site, you left a trail that indicated high intent to purchase - making you a hot potential customer!
Closing the sale
To really "push you over the edge", marketers then move in with a second hardball remarketing message and this time, they dangle a special price limited time offer.
Their targeting rule could read something like this: "Show the special price ad to anyone who lands on a particular sneakers page over the last 5 days, clicks the free delivery promotion ad and clicks the "add to cart" button but does not complete the buy transaction". In this example, the FREE delivery and special price combination managed to convince you to finally cave in and buy that pair of sneakers!

So using the marketing logic above, if you had visited the sneakers page, seen the FREE delivery ad on Instagram but did not click on it, you would not have been shown the special price ad.

We call this process "funnelling", as it's a way to funnel down the mass visitors who may just be browsing with no intent to buy, down to those who are really interested in buying.
I don't want to be followed
If you want to know what trackers are used on websites you visit and if you want to block them, you can download a browser extension called Ghostery that will show you all the trackers a site has and you can then choose which ones to block or with one click, block all of them. Keep in mind that certain trackers that are blocked may affect your browsing experience on some websites.
Conclusion: Are trackers good or bad?
When done correctly, remarketing can be very, very effective in converting sales and over time, this process can be automated and optimised. Imagine if you were not "followed", you would not have been given that great discount on the pair of sneakers that you wanted/needed.

The flip side is that it can get a little annoying when you keep seeing the same ads thrown at you over and over again.
On the other hand, if you are an entrepreneur who wants to increase your online sales, keep this in mind. Just pushing your ads many times to your target market won't guarantee that customers will buy your product. The key to successful sales is planning proper funnelling to ensure that you hit the right customer, at the right time, with the right message. But that's another story.